Models of Time Travel: a comparative study using film

This research identifies ways in which the science of time travel is presented to the public through the medium of feature films, and discovers if this can be used to construct a comprehensive set of models about time travel and its consequences.

There is no simple universally accepted understanding of what constitutes the nature of time. Even though the fundamental laws of physics do not prohibit time travel, there is no agreement between scientists and philosophers about what would happen if backwards time travel ever became a reality.

I identified the models that researchers from science and philosophy have produced about the nature of time, as well as time travel and other temporal phenomena. I then determined the model of time used in each of the 100 time travel films that I reviewed. I also used a verbal survey to elicit the personal models of time travel for each participant of three focus groups I conducted with members of the movie-going public. I compared these models of time with the personal models used by members of the movie-going public and synthesised them to develop a comprehensive set of 21 models of time. The ‘guyline’ diagrams  that I devised proved to be a very useful tool for analysing how the timelines behaved in each film. (See above example of Marty's travels in the Back to the Future trilogy.)

My research has shown that an investigation of time travel in films can indeed be used to construct useful models of time based on the evidence of the 21 models that I developed. Furthermore, I showed that both my models of time travel and my guyline diagrams helped to structure conversations about time with members of the movie-going public. The findings of this thesis can be used by scientists, philosophers, filmmakers and the public to help them clarify their thinking about time travel, the nature of time, how it is communicated, and also in future research.

This research was undertaken jointly at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) and at the Research School of Physics and Engineering (RSPE) both at ANU.